Fat glorious fat. There is a lot of information about fat out there, and this information is being frequently revised and updated. Low fat used to be the aim. Whatever fat you found, for best results – don’t eat it!
But the truth is more complicated than that of course. Removing fat from our diet is not realistic – for best health results a certain amount of our daily calorie intake should come from fats, they play essential roles in our bodies from providing fuel to providing materials needed by the body for health. Not all fats are created equal, there are great differences in the molecular structure of fats, and they have different benefits and drawbacks.
Until recently most people felt that it was best to avoid saturated fats and to eat instead mono and polyunsaturates. Firstly, what is a saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat?
Fats (lipids) are generally made up of fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. In our bodies the ratio is generally three chains of fatty acid to one glycerol molecule (triglycerides) and these chains can either be long or short. The chains of fatty acid are compiled of carbon and hydrogen atoms bound to each other. If all carbon atoms are bound to a hydrogen atom then the fat is saturated. Monounsaturated oils have two carbon atoms that are bound to each other rather than to hydrogen atoms (ie they are two hydrogen atoms short). The fatty acid chain bends at the point of the “unsaturated” bond. Polyunsaturates have two or more pairs of carbon atoms without hydrogen atoms, the fatty acids found most frequently in our foods are omega threes and omega sixes. Other attributes of these lipids – saturated short chain fatty acids are small and straight and therefore pack together easily and are typically solid at room temperature. Monos have a kink and therefore pack together less well, being solid only if refrigerated. Polys have multiple kinks and are liquid even in cold storage. The most important point to take out of this discussion on fat structure is that saturated fats have a very stable structure. In the unsaturates the carbon atoms that are paired with other carbon atoms do not make a stable bond – and if the bond breaks the fat and what it does to your body alter dramatically.
So why did saturated fat get a bad wrap? It was blamed for heart disease, hardening of the arteries, obesity etc.
But there is strong evidence that this is too simplistic. Saturated fatty acids do some very important things in our bodies. For example many protect the digestive tract from fungus and bacterium. Yes, that is right. This is of course particularly relevant for sufferers of candida and candidiasis. For example, Dr Crook in his book the Yeast Connection mentions a pill similar to nystatin made from a fatty acid found in saturated animal fat. So there. Coconut oil is know to have strong anti fungal and antimicrobial properties.
Saturated fat also plays an important part in our brains. Going on about coconut oil there have been recent studies showing how it can reverse and prevent alzheimers disease (about one teaspoon full per day). Our bodies also use saturated fat to make cell walls and to make certain hormones within the body. Some saturated fat is essential in our diets.
I imagine you are thinking, fine, but I don’t want to get heart disease. Well there are plenty of studies that show that those eating saturated fat do not necessarily have a higher risk of heart disease or even obesity. Yes, it is true. In fact, some people even say that you should up your saturated fat intake (while keeping your total calories the same) to lose weight. This is because saturated fat is your body’s preferred fuel as far as fats go. It is to do in part with the structure of saturated fat. It does not get denatured by heat (as do more complex polyunsaturates) and your body knows what to do with it. So when you get some sat fat it is easily metabolised and used as fuel. A rancid polyunsaturate on the other hand is deemed unnatural and dangerous and your body cannot easily metabolise it so it stores it away as fat. That is part of the problem with transfats.